Reading with chopsticks

fortune cookie chronicles

Last week our family went on our summer vacation and since I have
been reading nothing but academic textbooks about research, statistics
and public policy and social work theory, I needed something to read
that was purely for fun.

That is how I ended up bringing along only food writing. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee was the first one I read. How fitting that by the time I'd finished this book, my adoptive
parents (who we were vacationing with) took us out to a Chinese buffet.
Everything I'd learned from Jennifer 8 Lee was experienced first hand.

Growing up, my only experience of "Asian" food was a local joint in
town that was what I lovingly refer to as a "greasy chopstick" (like,
greasy spoon, Asian style – I know, silly).  This place was teeny tiny,
and was mostly take-out. My parents typically ordered the same thing –
some kind of an egg foo young and chicken chow mein with loads of
celery and a thick gravy and the toasted brown crispy noodles in a
separate bag that we tossed on top. Our trips to Chinese take-out were
infrequent and my parents often complained about how sticky the rice
was. Like a lot of Euro-Americans, their idea of rice was Uncle Ben's
style – the kind of rice that doesn't stick together and is nearly
impossible to eat with chopsticks.

Reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles brought me back to my
childhood, big time. I've always wondered why every little small town
in the middle of nowhere still seems to have a Chinese restaurant. Now
I know why.

As a Korean adoptee, who was raised without any connection or
knowledge about my country of origin, those rare dinners of
fake-Chinese food at the little hole-in-the-wall take out joint and the
Asian person at the register were the only small pieces of "Asia" in my
childhood. After I became an adult, I looked to dine at Chinese
restaurants where the Asian customers outnumbered the White ones; I
asked my Asian-immigrant friends and co-workers where they dined, knowing their highest praise for a restaurant was one that reminded them of home.
Thankfully, I had some caring friends who had come to America from all
over central and southeast Asia. They looked at me, and felt sorry for
me; that I was so lost and ignorant about my ethnicity. They were
patient and kind, and it is no exaggeration to say that a lot of my
cultural education happened around a table sharing a meal together.

I still submit happily to fake-Chinese food, but I have to say I
consider myself very lucky that I can choose from several Korean
restaurants now. And the true test for me will be when I learn enough
Korean cooking that I can make it at home. While I know that no matter
how true to form I become in my Korean cooking skills, I will never be
able to replace the experience of growing up as a Korean or Korean
American, I'm happy that I'm able to give my own children some of that
experience. For them, a dinner of kimchijigae, bulgogi, or chapchae
isn't unusual. They are used to coming with me to the Korean grocers,
helping me pick out ingredients for dinner. They don't flinch at big
jars of kimchi in the fridge or bags of dark, green roasted nori in the
cupboard. Even more, they are learning how to cook Korean food along
with their mom. Something that makes me wistful, because I didn't have
that for myself. I'll have to be content with having my Korean American
friends act as my mentor in that respect. As in my early 20s, it is
these Korean friends who have shown incredible kindness to me. They are
patient and kind. And what a gift they are giving me, by teaching me so
I can teach my children – whether at the stove or around the dinner

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

5 thoughts

  1. I loved Jennifer’s book, even though it was a bit of a shock to learn that fortune cookies are Japanese in origin and were co-opted by Chinese-American cooks.
    You should come to Portland, OR–home to a zillion foodcarts, a couple of them serving great Korean food. The wonderful owner of the Korean cart nearest my office, who recognizes me by name, always gives me a fork while the Asians in line get chopsticks–a tiny bit of reverse discrimination? (Or maybe she’s seen me use chopsticks and feels sorry for me!)

  2. Haha, I remember when I first stepped off the plane. My baba gave me a hamburger (to help me assimilate, never mind that he couldn’t have known I strongly DISlike burgers) and I choked it down because a) it wouldn’t have been polite to reject it, and b) my emotional and physical state wasn’t in a prime condition for immediately telling them what I liked – not that I knew myself, being in TAIWAN and all.
    Over the next few days my baba and mama took me shopping. They’d say “Do you like this?” or “Do you like that?” and I’d say “Well I don’t know, I can’t recognize it.”
    So eventually they’d bring meals home on a daily basis, and much to their amusement, watch me examine it and poke it and nibble on it to see if I liked it. Thank heavens for Markham’s Pacific Mall (Asian-American market) Korean restaurant, because if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize ANYthing.
    I like fake-Chinese food, but the authentic stuff which works best with chopsticks is awesome. I also love chow mein, although I haven’t purchased it very often here yet.
    One of the things I learned back in Toronto’s (Canada) downtown Chinatown restaurants is that if you walk in and there’s chopsticks on the table – it’s properly more like authentic Asian food compared to anything else you’ll find.

  3. That is wonderful that you have found in your adulthood the supportive benefits that you have. I I am trying to learn from my Chinese friends now how to cook for my daughter. (And they are teaching her as well). They have been wonderful!

  4. My husband,(filipino-american), jokes that rice is a metaphor for society. Asians, like their rice tend to stick together while Americans are kind of on their own.

  5. All I had was fried rice and sweet and sour pork. I didn’t see my first jar of kimchi until I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t see my first galbi until I was out of graduate school. What does that say about food and culture? I’ve always thought that people who use food in their writing to convey culture take the easy way out, but it almost always a perfect metaphor for the vivacity of any culture. Yeah, I’m very happy that for now, there are four Korean restaurants now, and a few Korean grocery stores. Perhaps, I’ll have to learn how to make more Korean food.

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